Book Review: Why Don’t Students Like School?

by Deana Swanson


Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist, wrote this fascinating book about how the mind works, how this relates to student learning, and to how and what we are teaching in the classroom. The answers to these questions he answers well, and I agree with most of what he writes because I have seen these concepts demonstrated in the classroom on a regular basis.

First of all, he states that thinking is just hard work. Students will not enjoy learning if the material is too hard or too easy. We’ve all seen that. If the content is too easy, students tend to tune out. But if the content is too far over their heads, they get frustrated and give up. Thinking is hard. We teachers need to make sure to give students material that is attainable for them to comprehend. Students who excel should be challenged and given harder work or extra incentives. (I will often say, “You need to have at least three pages; an A paper will have four or more.”)

Secondly, students need to have mastered basic facts and knowledge before they will be able to think critically. That’s why first, second, and third grade teachers are so important.

Willingham states that students remember what they think about. If we as teachers can present material in a way that is interesting and easy to understand, students will be able to relate to it more and make a connection with it. Then, they will think about it more. Of course, the absolute best way to do this is by telling stories. That’s a whole separate topic but think of examples from your own life or research and find relevant stories. It’s well worth the few extra minutes it takes to do so. Stories can get the students to care about the question; your lesson is the answer to the question.

Some lessons and information have no real meaning and just need to be memorized. In these instances, Willingham recommends using mnemonic devices. Once students have learned, understand, and memorized basic facts and procedures, then they are ready for deeper levels of thinking. (Example: To remember the names of the Great Lakes, think “HOMES.”)

Another reason he gives for students disliking school is that it is hard for them to understand abstract ideas. If teachers can gently guide them from concrete examples into more abstract ideas, we can really help this process for them. The causes of the Civil War were given as an example. When asked, “Why did the South fight?” a concrete answer would be “slavery.” But asking probing questions can lead students to more abstract ideas. When asked, “So why did they want slaves?” the abstract answer would be “money and greed.” Leading students through this process by asking these types of questions greatly aids students in thinking on deeper levels. This type of thinking should first be explored in classroom discussions. Writing about it would come after the thought process was well-established.

Willingham also greatly encourages memorizing math facts such as multiplication tables because if these are memorized, we have them automatically at hand when we need them, but more importantly, more brain space is freed up to allow space for other thinking, such as solving more complex algebraic problems. The process of memorization also increases the probability that students will be able to transfer this knowledge to new situations, such as division in the case of the multiplication tables.

Another concept he introduced that I hadn’t considered was expecting too much of students. The “Ten Year Rule” states that it takes about ten years of practice for anyone to be really good at something. That means almost all of our students are novices in all the subjects. If thinking is hard, and we are gently guiding them into thinking on higher levels and abstract concepts, then we need to be patient and keep repeating the process. With practice many, if not most of them, will eventually catch on, although they will do this at their own individual paces and levels.

Learning styles are compared to learning abilities. Learning styles are how students learn best: visually, auditory, kinesthetically. Willingham makes the point that students’ learning styles are really more alike than different. What varies more is their learning abilities. Some catch on to concepts faster, and some slower. We can’t do a lot to change that, but we can present the material in different ways that will help them stay interested in lessons and increase the likelihood that each one will be able to understand what we are teaching. Patience and repetition will also aid those students who need more time to process information and understand advanced concepts.

Another fascinating aspect that Willingham presents is that in Europe and Asia, many people believe that intelligence levels can be greatly improved with hard work and study. In contrast, many Americans believe that intelligence is fixed, and therefore we don’t try as hard to improve it. While he acknowledges that genetics does play a large part in the potential a student has, the environment that a student is in at home and at school can greatly nurture and improve a student’s intelligence. That’s an exciting process in which we as teachers can participate.

Willingham suggests setting high standards, having a positive attitude, and encouraging and believing in students. It is also helpful to model learning and trying hard. If students see their teachers looking up words in the dictionary, working hard at a math problem, or going over the sketch several times in art class, they will be more likely to imitate what they’ve seen their teachers do.

Last, Willingham addresses the minds of the teachers. He encourages us to practice and improve our skill in teaching and becoming knowledgeable in whatever content areas we are teaching. Getting feedback from students and other teachers can be helpful in this process.

While this book was long and had many complex ideas and concepts in it, I found it intriguing and interesting, helping me to understand my students and myself better.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Deana Swanson

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